Russian Doll is a series about meanings within meanings, extending from the double meaning of the very title, through to the genius Netflix stroke of releasing this Groundhog Day-style tale on the renowned and celebrated Groundhog Day itself.
Most people are familiar with the ornamental ‘Russian dolls’ which nest inside of each other; revealing the top of the doll only leads to one the next size under and on and on until the smallest is uncovered, usually the seventh. Layers upon layers of dolls. They are known in Russia as ‘Matryoshka’, which derives from the Latin meaning ‘mother’. Matryoshka dolls symbolically represent fertility and motherhood, the largest the matriarch protecting her young.
This on first glance may seem less important to a show like Russian Doll, in which ostensibly the ‘doll’ of the title is the character played by star and co-creator/writer Natasha Lyonne, Nadia Vulvokov – a New Yorker of Russian-Jewish descent around whom the time loop conceit rests. In truth, motherhood and the internal pain represented by the Matryoshka dolls lies at the core of Russian Doll, which, like those ornamental souvenirs, hides more than it first appears.
Everything about Russian Doll points to the fact it will be a straight up comedy take on the time loop idea, with a shot of Final Destination to boot – a film, you will recall, in which people are ‘stalked’ by Death after a premonition spares them from their ultimate fate. Lyonne has long been known as more of an acerbic, comedic actress, thanks to appearances in some of the American Pie series and lately Orange Is the New Black; the series is co-created by comedian and star of Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler (though she doesn’t appear on screen here); plus each episode runs no longer than half an hour. Traditional comedy territory, though dramas such as Homecoming are showing that long-held trend is beginning to buck.
Admittedly, too, Russian Doll begins tipped further toward nihilistic, black comedy than significant drama, focusing on Nadia’s dawning realisation that she cannot escape the fatalism of her 36thbirthday party – every night or the following day, through curious twists of fate anywhere from falling down staircases to unexpected gas explosions, Nadia dies and is snapped back to the bathroom at the party in her best friend’s apartment, staring at her reflection in a mirror. In true Phil Connors-style, Nadia remembers everything she did on her last loop and uses the knowledge to try and figure out how she has become embroiled in this temporal, existential loop.
Around halfway into the season, the show takes a turn which alters the story for Nadia and adds an important extra complication which allows Russian Doll to become more than just Nadia pratfalling to her death, or Lyonne (who is terrific throughout by the way) bullishly smoking, drinking and shagging her way around New York like she’s taken a side step out of an episode of Lena Dunham’s Girls. It allows the series to explore dramatic territory which introduces a significant level of pathos and existential ennui to the overtly comedic, pulpy concept. Nadia is hiding greater levels of pain from her childhood than she is willing to admit and particularly the penultimate episode, which becomes really quite dark and trippy, rips into the guts of that.
Yet Russian Dollnever loses sight of the tone it shoots for or the stylistic approach to the way it unfurls the eight-episode narrative. It is consistent and, importantly for a series predicated on a time loop idea, it maintains the same rules in terms of how Nadia engages with the strange, almost whimsical circumstance she finds herself in and, again in true Groundhog Day-style, the show never feels burdened in trying to explain how this is happening or by what design. It rather becomes about why, from a moral and humanistic standpoint, which affects Nadia’s significant character journey from episode one to eight. She is a different person between those two points.
Balancing laugh out loud comedy thanks to sharp writing, a streetwise sense of New York youthful style, and a river of unsentimental melancholia which grounds the show in a reality the concept threatens to remove it from, Russian Doll could end up being one of the quiet, stand out series of 2019. A fine vehicle for the talents of Natasha Lyonne, who alongside co-star Charlie Barnett in particular really holds the centre of a series which relies on strong central performances to carry the narrative, it also moves fast, makes sense with its own logic, and genuinely makes you root for Nadia and those around her.
Much like a Matryoshka, there are plenty of layers and deeper meanings to Russian Doll that belie how it may first appear. The first new show this year well worth peeling back and seeing what’s inside.
★ ★ ★ ★
DIRECTORS: Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, Jamie Babbit
WRITERS: Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, Allison Silverman, Cirocco Dunlap, Jocelyn Bioh, Flora Birnbaum
CAST: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley, Chloe Sevigny